On a cold winter’s day when I pause to consider our landscape, it is staggering to me that our nation’s top institutions of higher learning have – thus far – just divvied out over $50 million to football coaches whose contracts have been broken. In a world where we had hoped a man’s word was his bond and where a handshake once guaranteed an agreement, I fear we have gone terribly off-course in teaching values and decency to our next generations. Forget your promise, just write a check.
Nowhere is the stench of “win at all costs” worse this day than at Western Kentucky University where on Monday, in the most brazen hire in recent history, Robert P. Petrino escaped the public’s exile by being named as the new football coach of the Hilltoppers. Petrino, the most notorious scalawag in the game’s history, has enough tainted baggage to fill a storage warehouse but WKU officials, citing the United States as a land of the second chance, tossed integrity and institution values to the wind because “Bobby P.” has proven one thing above all else -- he can indeed win on Saturday afternoons.
The national outcry over Petrino’s hiring yesterday was predictable. Here’s a guy who has a long history over cover-ups and lying. Back when Tommy Tuberville was struggling at Auburn, Petrino had clandestine talks with his superiors. At Louisville he signed a contract extension less than a week before he shamelessly bolted to the Atlanta Falcons in 2007.
When the Arkansas job came open, he sulked away in the dead of the night, leaving a four-sentence laminated letter for his shocked (and livid) players to read in his mid-season wake. He is still considered the biggest coward in NFL history, this acerbated by the fact the Falcons owner was misled by blatant mistruths from Bobby P. and blindly did two national interviews based on the deception.
And while Petrino won 75 while losing 26 in all his previous years in college, a tawdry affair with comely female he hired on his staff – and a slew of more lies and misconception – caused him to not only be fired by an enraged Arkansas in April, but painted him as an evil, wicked misfit who was suddenly far more famous for his Harley-Davidson follies than his acumen in the passing game.
Now, in less than an eight months after whatever really happened that Sunday afternoon on Hwy. 16 outside of Fayetteville, a contrite yet somewhat smug Petrino has just signed an $850,000 contract at Western that has more loopholes and tangled knots than your child’s fishing reel. The consensus is he’ll hardly stay in Bowling Green for long, winning quickly and taking the first big-boy offer even faster.
Ironically, Petrino had longed to return to the SEC and two of the schools he tried hard to entice – Kentucky and Tennessee – are the Hilltoppers’ first two opponents next fall. At Monday’s announcement there was a huge crowd at the Stadium Club, which prompted new athletic director Todd Stewart to quip it was the largest crowd he’d seen in the room all season.
Western Kentucky has a good football team by Sunbelt Conference standards, this year’s team set to play in the Little Caesar’s Bowl against Central Michigan the day after Christmas. Willie Taggart, who guided Western to a 7-5 mark in the regular season, was lured away last week by South Florida. Two of Petrino’s children attend the University of Louisville so, for Bobby and his reconciled wife the offer to move away from Arkansas was a Godsend.
The bigger prize is that the Western job will give Petrino the time and the leverage to further repair his reputation. From the response at Western, it appears he is relishing such a chance and WKU, hoping time and wins will ease the “win at all costs” mentality, will reap wide benefits from a heightened media, a microwave-quick fan base and an intrigued (to say the least) sports world.
The Bible plainly reads, “Judge not lest ye be judged” but the overwhelming consensus by the nation’s media yesterday was that atonement “cannot be rushed.” Public perception aside, the question of “If his wife forgives him, who are we to say?” is a heady one. Then again, Petrino’s callous history is as sordid as any individual in our society and now he’ll be more watched and studied than any high school biology project.
That said, while the dismay and scorn is suddenly heaped on Western Kentucky, explain how great universities like Tennessee and Auburn and Purdue deftly write a check for all to see rather than fulfill a promise once thought to be valid. Compromising integrity and values should clearly be part of what we are teaching our young and, with sports now the front porch of storied institutions all across America, $50 million in less than a month -- just to win -- is quite telling about all of us.